Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O'Toole speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill August 25, 2020 in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Canada’s new Conservative leader

Will Erin O’Toole be able to unite Canada’s fragmented Conservative party?

Last Sunday night’s contest to elect the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada was a bad one for the religious creationists in the party. The evening ran on for so long that several new species evolved!

In truth it really was a succession of errors, with results that were supposed to be announced around 6pm not being declared until 1am on Monday morning, thus missing newspaper print editions and most of the country’s television audience. The party gave a variety of reasons to explain why 175,000 ballots couldn’t be counted anywhere close to the advertised time, but the one they finally settled with was that the machines that opened the envelopes containing the posted forms had malfunctioned: they’d torn a large number of the ballots and they then had to be taped back together. Satire suddenly became redundant.

It wasn’t helped by a final speech by retiring leader Andrew Scheer, a politician of quite extraordinary ineptness. With an embarrassingly sweaty upper lip the man who managed to lose an entirely winnable election last year to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau blamed almost everybody – and especially the media – other than himself for the party’s loss.

A new Tory leader has to accommodate a roaring minority of SoCons who will demand representation

His successor, MP Erin O’Toole, is a more capable politician and a more impressive man. A former member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, he comes from a political dynasty and served as a minister in the last Tory government that was defeated in 2015. He won the leadership on the third ballot with 57% of the votes, defeating rival Peter MacKay after candidates Leslyn Lewis and MP Derek Sloan had been eliminated. MacKay has been on the political scene for many years and was assumed to be the anointed leader when this race began several months ago. He ran a very poor campaign, however, and hemorrhaged support. Sloan is a dour social conservative who was never going to triumph but did receive the backing of the party’s hard right. Lewis, a woman of colour with impressive academic qualifications and a successful lawyer, was far more interesting, did surprisingly well, and will likely figure in the new leader’s plans.

In fact, he’ll have little option. Because while social conservatives supported Derek Sloan initially, their second choice was clearly Leslyn Lewis. She was eliminated with a third of the party’s support, most of who then swung to O’Toole. They represent the right of the party, are vehemently conservative, and have profound concerns about abortion, LGBTQ2 issues, assisted dying, and what they see as the liberal decay of their country.

And here’s the problem that the new Leader of the Opposition will have. Canada is essentially an enormous social democracy placed on top of the world’s mightiest superpower, where gun ownership, evangelical conservatism, anti-socialism, and fear of public ownership are systemic. Canada, on the other hand, has socialised medicine, strict gun laws, no legal restrictions on abortion, and equal marriage since 2005. Every survey shows that Canadians are entirely comfortable with all of this, and while there are regional differences – the west and especially Alberta tends to be less progressive on some of these subjects – the general thrust is liberal and permissive. So, a new Tory leader who is himself moderately socially conservative but not doctrinaire has to accommodate a roaring minority of SoCons who will demand representation, with an electorate who are far more concerned with the economy, jobs, and education.

O’Toole’s “Take Canada Back” platform was an especially jarring slogan to the country’s native people

The governing Liberals will, of course, try to expose that division, as will the third major federal party, the New Democrats, a left-of-centre grouping that while far from Corbynite will likely never form a national government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the key factor in all this. Charismatic, handsome, and relatively bright, he swept to power as the son of Pierre, a genuinely gifted politician. Trudeau has governed decently enough as a centrist, but he’s also been plagued with allegations of corruption – frankly, these are mostly fairly small-scale compared to other countries, but they do seem to keep coming. They’ve eaten away at his persona of the perfect politician; think early compared to later Tony Blair. Yet he’s still popular, and O’Toole has limited public profile and, while solid and respectable, is somewhat bland. He campaigned for leader on a “Take Canada Back” platform, which amused many onlookers who asked who we were taking it back from. It was an especially jarring slogan to the country’s native people, who have authentic grievances and who are, after all, the people to whom the land originally belonged.

Conservatives have a visceral dislike of Justin Trudeau, but as with the social conservative theme, that represents a certain disconnect from the public. Trudeau still has many devotees but also – important, this – a wave of Canadians who are largely indifferent to him but regard him as acceptable, adequate, and even occasionally rather good, especially around the coronavirus crisis that has been so appallingly handled south of the border. That national juxtaposition matters because Canadians watch US news every night as part of their basic television and know just how bad other governments can be. That may be unfair to Erin O’Toole, but he can’t ignore the reality.

The next few weeks will reveal a great deal. Do the Conservatives try to silence their socially conservative wing, as did former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, do they target Trudeau, what alternatives do they offer for post-pandemic economic growth, and how do they reassure Canadians that they are not, as accused, “Trump light” or somehow have a hidden agenda? There’s a chance that an election could be forced quite soon but it would be a dangerous gamble at such a time. Conservative ideologues will tell you, naturally, that everything is about to change in Canada. It’s not. The country works, it’s privileged and safe, and most of the ostensible anger from the right is inflated. Conservatives just better hope that their new leader is more competent than the people who ran the election that brought him to power. Then again, he couldn’t be otherwise.

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